Another university year has arrived, with tens of thousands of students returning to campus. For those looking to involve themselves in university life from day one, the university experience can be truly outstanding. However, ambition and drive bring stress with them, particularly for the most involved entrepreneurial students. This mini-series shares several experienced students’ thoughts, where they touch on hyperconnectivity, the value of stress, loyalty and persistence, among other themes. These opinions are those of the individual writers, and do not represent the views of The Wanderer Online.
I want to take the time to respond to Emerson Csorba and his September 6th article about Generation Y and the need for us to step up our game to prepare ourselves for an increasingly competitive world. He begins his article calling the “obvious response” to stress “naive”, and simply an unneeded concern from friends and family. He argues that stress can be overcome and “what was once a challenging situation for someone gradually becomes second nature”. He finishes with the advice that in order to avoid the ‘what ifs’ later in life, it is better to “embrace competition and maintain an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit in one’s youth”. Although I think I agree with his intentions, I want to address the attitude that is being promoted within it, which I believe mirrors a larger problem of society.
Particularly, what I want to talk about is our culture’s promotion of bad mental health, and Emerson’s article is the epitome of the attitude that promotes it. Here, at the university, it is a breeding ground for bad habits, of unreasonable expectations, and neglecting mental health self-care. According to the U of A National College Health Assessment conducted in 2011, 40% of students report having a problem with sleep, of which 25% called it ‘traumatic’ or a very difficult to handle. Further, one third of students said that “stress negatively impacted their academic performance”. There is a reason why the Students’ Union is currently in the process of trying to develop a Fall Reading Week, and that is to provide stress relief for students.
On top of the stresses of normal life, we are surrounded by so many videos, articles, and people who instil the ‘Just Do It’ mantra – or the forget what you think, it’s only your attitude that is weak philosophy. It has the tendency to leave us with the impression that everything is possible, the complete sky is ours to conquer, and given enough time and energy nothing can hold us back from what we desire (with of course a good pair of Nike shoes). You’ve seen the videos and read the articles; they leave you with your adrenaline pumping, craving to be as successful as those featured. And I think in particular, that those of us who have been encouraged throughout our lives (mixed with an enthusiastic insanity) are reeled in every time leaving our ears ringing from the sirens. I believe they call us entrepreneurs, workaholics, or perhaps, over-achievers, and I think we’re particularly prone to some bad habits around mental health.
You’ll find us in every shape and size. In university streams, you’ll find the ambitious academic, the passionate advocate and the smart entrepreneur. We’re usually well respected. Our resumes are long, and full with a magnitude of things. Our days are filled to the brim running around from appointment to appointment and squeezing in those 24 min coffee meetings with friends. We’re recognized by our peers and it seems we’ve got our hands in everything related to the field, with sometimes more. We seem to feed off of the energy of doing as much as we can. Smiling from ear to ear, we think we’re on fire. We think we’ve got it figured out. And we’re winning at life with nothing to hold us back.
Not to say that we aren’t winning at life (whatever winning at life means) – and we aren’t necessarily crumbling on the inside. But I think we have the wrong idea about how we are going to succeed in life and how long this can last, and it’s going to catch up to us. You see, the ‘Just Do It’ mantra is misleading us into thinking we can do anything and everything. That the sky isn’t just the limit but ready to be conquered entirely and subdivided. That enough coffee and a 30 min run to energize will power us through 7 days of back to back succeeding, meeting, and leading. Micro manage that sleep, eat well, put your mind to it and kabam! you have a formula for success. At everything. Forever.
We are surrounded by amazing, inspirational people who help us think bigger and better. But at the same time, we are surrounded by these people who likely also have the same problem, and it makes us feel like its normal to just do all this stuff. And when we begin to feel the stress linger in our muscles, pull at our jaw, and amplify our headaches, we’ll recognize it as a weakness that we forgot to eliminate. I must be tired because my diet isn’t right. What kind of super-food do I need to eat? I’m not eating enough avocados – that must be the problem. What about my workout? I’ve got it – 25 more down dogs and sun salutations to maximize efficiency. There we go.
So we spend the spare time we have reading articles at how to better manage our time, what the best workout is, how to succeed, and what the nine and a half qualities of a superhuman are. They all try and convince us that we’re just doing one small thing wrong, and if we adopt their methods we’ll be at the top of our game. We just need to find the right piece of advice.
They are right about one thing; we are doing one small thing wrong. We’re trying to do everything. The one thing that we all pay lip service to but never actually address is that humans have limitations (and a pair of Nike shoes just isn’t going to fix that). Now, we all have different limits and different situations. And undoubtedly these limits can be pushed and overcome. Further, I believe that the dynamic, competitive, and complex world that Emerson described, breaking past what we think are limits is going to be central to our society as a whole.
But our mantra shoves us all into one box and demands of us all to perform like superheros. He/she is better than you, because they put their mind over matter. Try harder, do more. Conquer or save the world already, you’re doing it too slow. Balancing academics, president of this club and that, founder of a new organization, striving to be an author, and an almost full time job can be tiring. Further more so when you complete it with 5am yoga classes, emails on the fly, a lunch time jog and drinks on the town. When are you allowed to be tired? Even if you survive university at this pace in one piece – of sound mind and with energy to go on – you will have the lingering expectation of yourself to keep it up in the long run and to perform at an increasingly higher level with little rest, because you could do so before. And since the world seems to be a dauntingly competitive place, you will think that if you stop, you will fall behind everyone else who looks like they’re doing a-okay. You could easily come to the conclusion that if you aren’t busy, you aren’t working hard enough and the world will fall apart – without you.
Emerson is right that “stress builds character, and it builds capacity in one’s work ethic and ability to persist”. Short-term stress helps me finish the essays and get focused on things I really did want to do but kept on procrastinating with. But there are different magnitudes of stress which we have to distinguish here, and look to other generations to understand. The long-term stress derived from simply trying to do too much, for too long, leads to chronic illnesses such as auto-immune diseases and depression. Really , are these consequences worth it? Obviously our society has voted yes as it only continues to promote it, but the people who are left struggling after developing these issues would very much disagree. My wonderful mother, of whom I am almost a carbon copy clone, is now one of these people that challenges me to consider ‘is it worth it?’ after her own diagnosis that leaves her with a fraction of the capabilities that she had only years ago. And it’s not that she didn’t practice enough yoga. Undoubtedly tied to overworking, stress, and long-term self-neglect she is not an exception from her group, but instead is surrounded by friends and co-workers of the same work ethic who are left physically, mentally and emotionally crippled from simply working too hard, too long. So they succeeded in their field, were recognized by their peers at the time, but now that is all said and done what were they left with?
Watching my mother through this, I can’t help but stagger back and question what I do. When young and energetic and surrounded by constant streams of information, it is hard not to feel like we need to work, be ultra-connected, and achieve in every moment of our lives. And I am still of the philosophy that we should always be open to new opportunities, get involved in new things, and throw ourselves out there. Indeed, these are fabulous things, and many of my greatest moments and proudest achievements stem from being involved. But what we have to recognize is that what we do now sets precedent for the rest of our lives, and if we expect to perform at such an intense level for the long-term we need to prepare for the consequences.
So what am I advocating? I say all this not in opposition of the article I wrote for last year’s university orientation series, where I strongly encouraged new students to get involved. I still think being involved and pushing past what you ever thought you could do is very important. Instead, this is advice specifically for those who are already A-type personalities with a drive to do everything. Listen, slow down. Learn to breathe, relax and do nothing once and awhile. Put people watching or something into your schedule. Recognize that not only is it not normal, but also unhealthy, to be in a constant state of work. Learn that balance is crucial, but incredibly hard because we only really find that we are out of it when we start to break down. Finally, be conscious that our society is not aiding in the solution but instead instigating the problem, connecting us now 24/7 to our work, hammering at us in all directions about the success of others and then brutally contrasting that with the problems of the world. But our time, our health, and our happiness are being siphoned away for this idea we call success or progress, and I think we’re getting tired of it.
So I’ll say this; don’t be fooled into thinking you are being lazy, unproductive, or a failure when you learn to slow down and say no to some potentially good opportunities. You have to learn to work within your limits, even if it seems selfish to do so. You may not want to regret missing out on opportunities for success in your university years, but you also don’t want to regret wearing yourself down right out of the gate, missing all the moments unique to this day and age and all the things you can contribute later.
Remember, we’re humans, not machines. And as humans, we also have the ability to stop and smell the roses, and I’ll have you know it’s a wonderful scent when we remember to.
Creative Commons photograph courtesy of photon_de on Flickr.